Story & Photos by Andy Lyons, Editor-in-Chief
Earlier this summer, Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear released their sophomoric effort, a six-song EP titled “The Radio Winners,” and after a few one-off shows they hit the road earlier this month with The Record Company.
That tour brought them home to Kansas City Tuesday night, opening the show to a packed house at the Madrid Theatre. The group has evolved from their days as a mother-and-son duo and now works as a five-piece band to bring songs to life from both “The Radio Winners” and their debut album “Skeleton Crew.”
“The Radio Winners” is a big departure from “Skeleton Crew,” the duo’s sound evolving from simply Madisen and Mama Bear Ruth on acoustic guitars and vocals to include an electric guitar, drums and bass. The simplicity behind “Skeleton Crew” gave the album a biting feel, the stripped-down sound piercing directly into the hearts of listeners.
The same can be said about the bigger sound of “The Radio Winners.” The use of additional instruments and gang vocals throughout give the EP a bit more urgency, and drive the heaviness of the lyrics home. The evolution of the sound behind the new album gave reason for the Wards to do the same with their live set, something that surprised the Kansas City crowd Tuesday night.
One of the most notable tracks from “Skeleton Crew” that has gone through the evolution is the group’s hit song “Silent Movies.” Hearing the opening chords through an electric guitar instead of the acoustic they’ve come to know, the crowd erupted in cheers for the song.
“(We) brought on a guitarist with us named Bryce Veazey, he does really, really good work on the electric with us,” Madisen explained. “We sort of just wanted to bring him along to play on some songs that we thought were going up to another level on this EP that we put out. And at the same time sort of revamp the older stuff that we did and make it more palatable for a bigger band setting.”
Madisen also said having additional players on stage allows each individual to be more creative, which adds to a fuller sound coming from the stage.
“We had been touring as a four piece but just adding on a five piece made the transition into some of those bigger tracks a little bit more palatable on stage to where you could really delve into it and get more creative,” he said. “When you have more people doing stuff you can work on other stuff. It’s been a creative journey.”
Similar to “Skeleton Crew,” the tracks on “The Radio Winners” are lyrically very dark. Yet, when coupled with the band’s sound, can seem like they reflect dark situations in a positive light. Madisen explained that was due to a reflection of his and his mother’s personalities.
“I’m the most cynical person you’ll ever meet, and my mom is the most positive,” he said. “Maybe it just comes out in the blood, I don’t know. But I love things that are bittersweet. I’ve always loved things that might sound a little creepy but maybe the lyric is beautiful.”
Bringing the new songs and new sound to their hometown crowd made for an exciting night for the group, far removed from the days of playing in coffee shops around the city. It meant playing in front of friends and family, people who know them personally, as well as in front of new fans along the way.
“It’s been a minute since we’ve been able to get out and play for everybody,” Madisen said. “You can always feel the love in the room though. It’s a great sort of undeniable energy that comes from people you live with.”
Throughout the set, fans in the audience were singing along and dancing to the music. Each time Madisen or Ruth mentioned their KC roots the place exploded. There are few times when artists on stage look like they’re honestly having fun, as it’s usually part of their show. Yet the smiles and words exchanged between the Wards and their fans showed of a special connection, and one the duo drove home with a special encore that was just the two of them.
“As a musician you always gotta be ready to do something,” Madisen explained. “And honestly, we weren’t even supposed to play another song. We’re an opening act for this show and there’s a curfew. But we just knew it was home. It’s our hometown, and it just felt wrong to walk away.”
For more, follow Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear on Facebook here. For the latest in local music, follow Central Mo New on Facebook here. Listen to our interview with Madisen and Ruth Ward below via SoundCloud.